December 4, 2017 8:00 am JST
China up close

Communist China's third era: 2012 to 2035?

Xi hangs 'do not disturb' sign as he dreams of belts, roads and a strong military

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

The second volume of Chinese President Xi Jinping's book "Xi Jinping: The Governance of China", translated into multiple foreign languages, is on display at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec.1. © Reuters

TOKYO -- To the casual China watcher, what took place in October might look like a lot of pageantry. A once-every-five-years "national congress" of the Chinese Communist Party was held. On the opening day, the party's general secretary and the country's President Xi Jinping delivered a grueling three-and-a-half-hour speech. There was talk of a "new era" and repeated references to the "Chinese dream" of the "rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

An amendment to the party constitution acknowledged Xi's policies, officially named "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era," as an official "thought" to serve as a guideline.

What was it all about? In late November, He Yiting, the 65-year-old executive vice president of the Central Party School, an important organization that trains party cadres, was in Japan. He (pronounced Hur) is a close aide to Xi and is said to be one of the leader's speech writers. He gave a surprisingly simple and clear explanation of the events in October.

The Communist Party heavyweight spoke before Japanese lawmakers at the parliament building in Tokyo. He made a splash by effectively declaring that the party's history had been rewritten.

"The party's history since it took power can be divided into three eras," he said. The first era came under Mao Zedong, communist China's founding father. The second era was under Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the "reform and opening-up" policy. Now China has entered the third, Xi's era.

Erasing the national memory

This is not only a rewriting of the party's history, it is a drastic one.

According to He, the Mao era saw the party, along with the Chinese people, rise up and found the People's Republic of China. The Deng era saw China become affluent, thanks to the reform and opening-up policy. And already, the new era has seen China become a great power.

This portrait of Mao Zedong hangs on the Tiananmen in Beijing. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Here is the slightly more detailed explanation of the party's new version of history, one that is largely based on He's remarks.

The Mao era lasted from 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, until around 1978, two years after the chairman's death in 1976.

The Deng era lasted from 1978, when he declared the introduction of the reform and opening-up policy, until 2012. Deng passed away in 1997. But he designated Jiang and Hu as successive national leaders. Xi stepped into Hu's shoes in 2012.

In the new era, which began in 2012, Xi has sought to strengthen China's power while ensuring strict party governance through a fierce anti-corruption campaign that targets his political foes. Xi has also brought the military under his control.

The general secretary's vision for China's future calls for basically achieving economic and military modernization by 2035 and turning the country into a "great modern socialist country" -- a global leader that matches the U.S. -- by 2049.

The drastic rewrite means that achievements made so far in the Xi era, like his politically convenient corruption crackdown, are already deemed equal to those made in each of the much longer Mao and Deng eras.

The rewrite also means that the eras under Xi's two immediate predecessors, Jiang and Hu, were so unimpressive that they can be effectively incorporated into the Deng era.

Jiang, 91, and Hu, 74, formally chose Xi as their successor. The two attended the national congress; they were present as Xi declared the arrival of a new era and cast the obliviate charm to deal with their eras.

The mysterious target year

One might wonder what the two party elders are feeling right now, but the big question is: How long will the Xi era last?

Under the national constitution, a Chinese president can serve up to two five-year terms. Xi is supposed to retire as president in 2023. But the party's general secretary has no such constraints, although Jiang and Hu relinquished both posts almost simultaneously upon their retirement.

If Xi follows custom, he will retire as party chief at the next national congress, in 2022. But it is doubtful that he will do so.

A signboard featuring Deng Xiaoping stands in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

The Mao era lasted for nearly 30 years. The subsequent Deng era lasted for 34. (Remember, Jiang's and Hu's reigns are included here.)

At the party congress, Xi unveiled a two-stage plan that gives insights into the future of his "new era." In the first stage, the plan specifically calls for building a moderately prosperous society by 2020 and realizing a socialist modernization by 2035.

In the second stage, China is to be turned into a "great modern socialist country," a global leader on par with the U.S. both economically and militarily, by 2049, the centennial of the People's Republic of China..

A great war machine

This was the first time the year 2035 was brought up as a target. "We have brought forward the target of basically achieving modernization by about 15 years," according to He, the party school vice president. China had previously been pursuing the target with an eye on 2049.

In fact, almost all major projects included in Xi's "report," as his stamina-testing speech is officially called, are planned with the target year set at 2035.

Decorations seen on a banquet table during the Belt and Road Forum held at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in May. © Reuters

Among the projects are the Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions modern-day Silk Road trade routes to Europe and Africa.

Another project is a high-profile initiative to create the greater Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Province metropolitan area.

Still another envisions integrating the internet, big data and artificial intelligence with the real economy. Xi also wants to realize a green and low-carbon society, flesh out the sharing economy and build modern supply chains.

China's economy is growing at a gradually decelerating pace. But Chinese leaders are confident that their country will overtake the U.S. in terms of economic size by 2035 at the latest.

Xi's vision also sees China's military being fully modernized by 2035. China intends to foster personnel who can cope with modern electronic warfare. It is modernizing its weapons and equipment and enhancing its operational capabilities. Xi's vision for the future of China calls for eventually building a "world class" military by the mid-21st century.

The continued reference to the year 2035 reflects Xi's teams hopes that the Xi era will be last until then. This, however, does not necessarily mean that Xi himself will be China's official leader until 2035.

Xi could step aside five years from now or 10. The "Xi era" will effectively last as long as his designated successors -- "Xi's disciples," so to speak, -- hold power. The Deng era, after all, lasted after Deng's death, thanks to Deng's two disciples -- Jiang and Hu.

Just like Deng, Xi will be able to ostensibly retire and still behave as China's de facto supreme leader.

Freedom of movement

Xi is already laying the groundwork for this. His anti-corruption czar corralled Sun Zhengcai, 54. The disgraced former top official in Chongqing had been seen as a candidate to take over as China's top leader, along with Hu Chunhua.

In October, Xi did not promote Hu Chunhua, 54, to the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body. Hu had long been seen as a promising member of the Hu Jintao faction.

And before the national congress, Xi's political group was steadfastly working to disarm Hu Jintao's and Jiang's factions of their influence.

When the timing of a powerful leader's retirement is unclear, each political force has no choice but to obey the incumbent leader.

Now Xi has more freedom to put off retirement.

And his rivals have less freedom of movement. In China, when the timing of a powerful leader's retirement is unclear, each political force has no choice but to obey the incumbent leader.

There is no doubt, however, that one day a new political force will emerge to try to block Xi's ambitions. A party tug of war is inevitable.

For these past five years, Xi has managed to hold down dissent and contained the old guard, armed by his anti-corruption campaign.

Tomorrow's inevitable new guard and its still-invisible political star will take on a new crusade, with a different strategy than Xi's. With whatever tools it can muster, it will take aim at the existing political forces, possibly including "Xi's disciples."

Somewhere in China the future leader lies waiting. This political star will ultimately decide the longevity of Xi's era. For the time being though, Xi has hung a "do not disturb" sign on his door, as he dreams of belts and roads and all he can do until 2035.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

Resubscribe now to continue reading.
BEST OFFER:
Only US$ 9.99 per month for a full-year subscription

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.